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Fudging the facts

Published on Friday, 09 Nov 2012
Angel Lam (pictured) and Vivian Wong say it pays to get to the bottom of inconsistent interview responses.
Photo: Robert Walters
Angel Lam and Vivian Wong (pictured) say it pays to get to the bottom of inconsistent interview responses.
Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Who has never been tempted to make their resume a little more appealing? Perhaps you’ve put down a salary you thought you deserved all this time, or a nice title you’ve been waiting for all these years, to correct the injustices of life in pursuit of a better career. Unfortunately too many people give in to the temptation, say recruitment experts, which puts their future careers at risk.

“The facts most often changed are salary, bonus, employment omission, employment status, overstated achievements and overstated skill sets,” says Angel Lam, manager of Robert Walters’ commerce finance team.

Leaving out a short and maybe unsuccessful stint with a company, and making a corresponding change in employment dates to cover up the gap, will help avoid awkward questions. A small increase in salary or a more senior title will put one in a better position to negotiate. Candidates may also overstate their skills, especially in IT or languages, or add some professional qualifications they do not possess.

Vivian Wong, trainer and coach with Evie Consulting, previously worked for Goldman Sachs and interviewed candidates as part of her job. She says: “[Chinese applicants] would first agree to work within China, but once hired, they want a posting overseas and hope to get away with it.”

Lam says some applicants may even pretend they are still with their last company, thinking this will give them better bargaining power. She warns, however, that these days human resources professionals will check backgrounds thoroughly. They will call the company and ask for the applicant, to check if the person still works there. They will ask for pay cheques as salary proof, cross-check reference letters and call the HR offices of previous employers. For high-level hiring they also check the educational references and whether or not the candidate has any form of criminal background.

In an interview, Lam likes to focus on the most recently held position first. “You should ask probing questions on recent projects, most recent experiences and company events. To check achievements, you ask about the applicant’s level of involvement in the project, or how they manage their team. If they hesitate, stutter or become inconsistent, you need to clarify and verify the facts,” she says.

Wong, who has recently launched her Paul Ekman’s “Lie to me” emotional-intelligence and lie-detection training programme, agrees. “Drilling down [in an interview] takes time, but it often pays off because if the person is hiding something, at some point things start to not make sense,” she says.

She cautions, however, against rushing to conclusions. Fidgeting, for instance, is a way of dealing with nervousness. But are interviewees nervous because they are lying, or because they are worried that the interviewer may think they are lying? Or are they simply nervous because they are worried about not getting the job? “You have to find out why – don’t jump into conclusions,” she says.

The higher one climbs, the further they can fall. Yahoo’s former chief executive Scott Thompson had to resign soon after starting in his position because he claimed on his resume that he had an IT degree, while his degree was in accounting. David Edmondson, former president and chief executive of Radioshack, had to resign because his CV stated that he had two degrees – in theology and psychology – for which his school had no records. Richard Li of PCCW courted controversy when an international newspaper discovered he did not graduate from Stanford University, contrary to what his company’s website said.

“The higher you go, the more credibility you lose, and you have to stick to your story,” Lam says. “If you are caught lying, you may lose your job, and your personal integrity, credibility, trustworthiness and reputation will be damaged. The Hong Kong employment market is smaller than you think. Word gets around and it can potentially affect your job search.”

So what should you do now if you have already fudged some of your career details on your CV? If there are any hints that people doubt what you have put down, you should immediately admit it and apologise sincerely.

“If you get caught, it will affect your career. Hopefully by coming clean you get a second chance,” Lam says.

Wong agrees and says that if the employee seems honest, she would give them the benefit of the doubt.

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